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Over Half of Workers Aren't Covered by the Family Leave Act

Sharon Lerner
Perla Saenz went back sore and exhausted just four weeks after giving birth—and two weeks after the incision from her C-section reopened. (She had heard her older child cough in the night and instinctively tried to pick him up, forgetting for a moment her doctor’s warning against lifting anything heavier than ten pounds.) Weak and sometimes feverish, she often found herself clutching the counter for support.

Bernadette Cano was back on the job five weeks after giving birth. Though she was in better physical shape, she wasn’t ready to be apart from her son. “I was thinking about the baby all the time,” she told me tearfully from the break room of Walmart, where she worked in the dressing room. Under normal circumstances, she enjoyed the job tidying up the dressing rooms and returning clothes to the racks. But with her newborn son at home, she couldn’t think of anything else and even broke the company policy against texting so she could check in with her family.

These women, just two of dozens I’ve interviewed in my research on parental leave, are far from alone in having inadequate time off. While many people think of three months as the typical length of maternity leave (perhaps because mothers often need at least that long to recover from birth), the majority of working mothers in the U.S. are back at work before three months is up: More than a quarter are at work within two months of giving birth, according to the latest census data, and one in ten—more than half a million women each year—are back at work in four weeks or less. Some go back to work just a few weeks—and sometimes days—after giving birth.

It’s easy to think we’ve solved the problem of maternity leave. After all, the Family and Medical Leave Act, which became law 20 years ago today, gave workers time off to care for a newborn or newly adopted child, sick relative, or their own illness. Today, as we celebrate its anniversary, we can—and

should—celebrate all that this first major piece of American family policy has done. Workers have used the FMLA more than 100 million times since 1993 to care for their loved ones or themselves while holding on to their job and, often, their health insurance.

But the FMLA leaves almost half the workforce uncovered.